Last week the Columbia Journalism Review published a brief story about how various industry publications wrote notably different news pieces based on one press release.
The stories centered around a lawsuit between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Hotfile, which is described in the piece as “a cyberlocker service that lets users upload files and creates a link for each one.”
Because the ruling in the case was not immediately available through normal public channels, news media were forced to report on the story with virtually no direct sourcing on the result of the trial. Here is where MPAA made the savvy move to issue a press release pronouncing the ruling was a victory for the industry. Ignoring the resulting bias from technology media, with a natural inclination to support Hotfile, and entertainment reporters, with a similar bent toward the MPAA, the predominant storyline was that the ruling was a clear victory for MPAA.
Issuing the release was a savvy move from the MPAA, not simply for being the only direct commentary on the case but because in litigation often the first word is the most important. Most legal documents, especially judgments, are long and complicated.
Most of all, rarely do rulings offer clear, definitive language that supports the notion of a resounding victory for one side over the other. That is not to say it does not ever happen, though. It is rare because the court must weigh the arguments of both sides, meaning that competent attorneys will make strong points for their clients.
As a result, subsequent media reports of a ruling often rely on how one side or the other is reading the ruling.
If the law supports one argument over the other, the tone and length of the victorious party will help reporters contextualize exactly what it means for the company and maybe the industry. In these situations it is important to stay in line with the organization’s broader legal strategy. If an appeal is likely, the victorious company will need to be confident and excited about the ruling, but careful not to go too far in their language. It is always important to remember that judges, regulators and the opposition read these statements carefully.
In the case of Hotfile, while a statement may not have been entirely appropriate given that ruling was not favorable, ignoring the media only served to do further harm to the company’s public image. In order to bring the tone of the coverage back toward a more middle ground, the company might have considered a single interview where the executive was able to emphasize that the ruling was not as clear cut as MPAA made it out to be.
Another tactic, if allowed by the attorneys, would be to arrange for reporters to speak with legal counsel on background to provide more context to the ruling and highlight key points that refute claims in MPAA’s release.
Losing a verdict at trial does not have to mean a total loss in the court of public opinion.